Logical Chernev

I've just come across two splendid swipes at Irving Chernev.

Here is John Nunn, in the introduction to his Grandmaster Chess, Move by Move. He quotes a very illuminating annotation by Alekhin, and then goes on to say:

"Lesser annotators are often fond of propounding grand general principles, but these are often totally misleading.  A typical example occurs in Logical Chess, Move by Move (Simon and Schuster, 1957) by Irving Chernev (I have converted the descriptive notation to algebraic).  His Game 3 ...

... goes 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 e3 and we read "Generally, it is dubious strategy to release one Bishop while shutting in the other".  After 3...e6 he says "This deserves censure because it is a routine developing move which seems to take no thought of crossing White's plans".  Yet a little later Game 8 ...

... went 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 e6 ("Black releases his King Bishop and does not commit himself to any specific line of defence.")  3 e3 d5 ("Black plants a pawn firmly in the centre.")  Now there is no censure for Black's play, only approval, but we have reached exactly the same position as the earlier game.  What then, can we make of Chernev's general principle on developing Bishops?  Basically, it's wrong.  Many common openings flout it, such as the Queen's Gambit Declined, the Closed Ruy Lopez, the French and several lines of the Sicilian.  Even in 1957, these openings were played by many World Champions.

"If you are unlucky, the 'general principle' being put forward may not even apply to the specific position under discussion.  Referring again to Logical Chess Move by Move, Game 12 goes ...

... 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 d5! 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 Bg2 Nb6! (his exclamation marks) and now we read

"There is another bit of subtlety in the Knight's move, one which the modern master frequently utilises.  The Knight takes advantage of the Bishop's fianchetto development and bears down heavily on c4, a square weakened by the Bishop's absence."  The italics are Chernev's so he obviously considered this point important.  However, it is absurd.  White will inevitably play d3 (or possibly b3) to develop his c1-bishop, after which the knight cannot move to c4.  Even if it could, it wouldn't attack anything and would be instantly driven away again.  The game continued 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 0-0 Be7 8 d3 0-0, reaching a standard position.  The d3-pawn covers c4 and did so for the remainder of the game, so this isn't even a case of annotation by hindsight.  Chernev was trying to formulate a general principle, this time on the defects of the fianchetto development, but it's not one that has any contact with reality.

"A player of his strength is unlikely to discover new general principles which somehow eluded great chess thinkers such as Tarrasch, Nimzowitsch and Reti.


"Every chess move adheres to some general principles but contravenes others."


Exhibit B: here is Master Ron Wieck, in his Foreword to Purdy's Action Chess:

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Qe7 5. O-O d6 6. d4 Bb6 7. a4

"... Here Chernev writes,

"A tricky move, but an illogical one.  White threatens an attack on the bishop by 8.a5.  If then 8...Bxa5, 9 d5 strikes at the Knight protecting the Bishop.  After the reply 9...Nd8, White captures by 10.Rxa5, winning a piece.  Should Black, after 8.a5, play 8...Nxa5, the continuation 9.Rxa5 Bxa5 10.Qa4+ nets White two pieces for a Rook." 7...a6.  "Prepares a retreat for the Bishop." (...) 8.a5 "There is just a wee chance that Black will be tempted to take the pawn." 8...Ba7 "But Black does not bite!"

"All very charming.  It's as though an affectionate uncle took you by the hand and made sure you didn't miss anything.  

"Later, however, you happen to pick up a copy of Tarrasch's book on the great tournament, St.Petersburg 1914.  The game, Gunsberg-Alekhin, repeats these moves, but on move 8, Alekhin bit:  8... Nxa5 9. Rxa5 Bxa5 10. Qa4+ b5 (Oops.  Maybe he was doing more than prepare a retreat) 11. Qxa5 bxc4 ... And White did not have enough for the exchange. 

"We return to Logical Chess where Scheve had just played 9.h3.  Chernev devotes half a page to castigating this move:

"A coffee-house move! (...)"
"He goes on and on, quoting Tarrasch and Alekhin, delivering a sermon on the certain damnation that attends any pawn move in front of a castled King."


9...Nf6 10. dxe5

"White exchanges, and opens lines for his pieces. Unfortunately, this reacts in Black's favor..." 

"10...Nxe5 11. Nxe5 Qxe5 12. Nd2 Bxh3 13. gxh3 Qg3+ ... and the finish should be fairly obvious.

"You buckle down to some study on the Italian Game and discover that 7.a4 is a perfectly good space-gaining move, and the blunder 8.a5? is best replaced by the coffee-house 8.h3, a strong move which preserves the tension in the centre to White's advantage by preventing ...Bg4, which would strike indirectly at the square d4.  White stands well after 8...Nf6 9 Re1, so in retrospect it is apparent that Scheve's 10.dxe5 was a terrible howler.  The problem is, Chernev was utterly clueless about the reason for White's defeat, leaving the definite impression that h3 was the culprit.  You end up wishing your patient uncle would take a hike and learn something about chess.

"I have been terribly harsh with Irving Chernev ... but I must insist that you can't teach what you don't know.  This is where Purdy is different: he really understands the positions he discusses."

Ouch squared.

On the other hand...

1. Specifics

a. Well, we all know people who can't teach even what they do know, so I'm happy for people who can teach to have a go.  Chernev was far from a dead loss as a player (he scored 6/15 in the US Championship in 1942, national master strength), and if you want to find holes in published analysis, Chernev isn't the strongest player ever to leave one

b. In the context of the game given, the move 7...a6 does seem to have been made to provide a retreat, just as Chernev said (and just as von Scheve, Teichmann and Gunsburg likely thought).

c. What did Alekhin say, exactly, that he could be quoted by Chernev in support of his criticism of 9.h3?

"Always try to keep the three pawns in front of your castled king on their original squares as long as possible."

And indeed, when Alekhin had this position as White, twice, he did not play 8.h3, but 8.Be3.  So this would not be an example of Chernev inventing a general principle that Alekhin overlooked, but Chernev quoting and explaining what Alekhin wrote and played.

d. I'm happy to think that Ron Wieck knows players who might seek out Tarrasch's tournament book, or who might buckle down to research this unusual line of the Giuoco Piano.  But I have a feeling that Chernev is instead addressing beginning players who might play as follows:

  • 1 h3...
  • 1 a3 2 h3...
  • 1 e4 2 h3...
  • 1 e4 2 Nf3 3 h3...
  • 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 d3 h6 5 Nc3 d6 6 h3 a6 7 a3 Nf6 8 b3...

And if Chernev wants to spend half a page shouting about this habit, I'm sympathetic, even if it was mistimed. My most detailed information about the Giuoco Piano is the Batsford offering from Gufeld and Stetsko, who, after trundling down the main line, comment:

"The h3-pawn is a reasonable place for Black to start organizing an attack on the king..."

e. Oh, and let us quote the whole of Chernev's comment after dxe5:

"White exchanges, and opens lines for his pieces. Unfortunately, this reacts in Black's favor, in accordance with the rule in these cases:
Open lines are to the advantage of the player whose development is superior."

Maybe mistaken, but not "clueless".  [Selective quoting isn't fair.  If I wanted Chernev to look better, I would have left out all of Nunn's stuff about the English Opening in Game 12.  But that wasn't the whole of the argument.]

f. Similarly, with regard to Nunn's discussions of Chernev's comments on the Colle: Chernev's full comment on Game 8 was

"Black plants a pawn firmly in the centre.  This move, together with ...e6, blocks in the Bc8."
So, not quite so contradictory.  I'm forever trying to get juniors to stop getting unnecessarily cramped and passive positions by making moves like d3/d6, blocking the lines of their Bishops. I'm going to guess that Chernev had also seen enough games like:
  • 1 e4 2 Nf3 3 d3 4 Be2...
  • 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 d6...
...to want to encourage players to get the bishops out in a more organised way.   How would you phrase some advice for a beginner who kept doing that, I don't know, "Don't make a pawn move to release one bishop if you haven't got a plan to develop the other one"?  It could come out like Chernev's formula, I guess.  I'd probably also quote Lasker's (equally mistaken) advice "Do not move any pawns in the opening of a game but the King and Queen pawns." Some other day, I might confuse beginners with the many exceptions to this rule ... but today, that's good advice.

g. With this in mind, I too would prefer to see my clubmates, after 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 e3, play a move like  3...Bf5, crossing up White's clockwork plan of Bd3 Nbd2 and e3-e4.  [In the other move order, in Game 8, the issue doesn't arise.]

2. General

"I remember chancing upon it as a frustrated, fumbling teenage chess novice and being happily amazed to learn that chess actually had underlying principles I could learn and use. This process was aided by the simplicity and clarity with which Chernev explained myriads of previously mystifying master moves and maneuvers. Reading it was like a having a blindfold removed, waking up from a confused daze, or having a light turned on in a dark room (not to mention having several hundred points added to my rating)." – Taylor Kingston

I had exactly the same experience, and so have many others.  I think Chernev's book was only the second chess book I had read (the first one being David Pritchard's The Right Way to Play Chess); and as a second chess book, it was wonderful.  I ordered the book hoping to get maybe a catalogue of chess principles which I could then apply.  When the book arrived, I was actually frustrated for a moment that this was nothing of the sort, because the book seemed so flippant and unmethodical, but I was soon delighted and charmed by what I read.  Chernev is so engaging and enthusiastic, and I have had so much pleasure from reading this and others of his books and enjoying his selection of games and positions.

"Nimzowitsch became then for me more or less the author of the only book which could help me get away from these Euwe books, which, I admit, are very good for the ordinary club player. But once you've reached a certain strength you get the impression that everything that Euwe writes is a lie." -- Bent LARSEN, in KEENE, Nimzowitsch: a reappraisal.

I think that's the heart of it; Chernev is even more careless with the truth than Euwe, but you have to start somewhere.  It took Chernev yelling "Get your pieces out!" six times a game for 33 games for me to remember it, and he did so with such variety, with such a sense of wit and good humour, that I didn't realise I was being shouted at.  You might say that if I hadn't started with such enthusiasm for Chernev, I would be better than the barely-2000 ELO I am now, but GM Maurice Ashley still recommends Logical Chess and describes it as his favourite book. (See also a review of Chernev's Logical Chess; there are many other positive reviews online, and Dan Heisman can't stop recommending Chernev's books.)

I don't know the Grandmaster way to coach beginners out of playing 1 a4 2 Ra3 and 1 h4 2 Rh3, but I do try and discourage it.  You learn this, but in fact you overlearn it... so that later (as Larsen pointed out), you overlook opportunities to develop rooks in this way, when it may be the most appropriate method.  But you can get over these over-generalisations. [I'm reminded of going into a science lesson for 11-year-olds, and the teacher saying, "All matter is made of atoms, but the atom also has a structure; here is the nucleus, here are electrons going around it like the Earth goes around the Sun"... If you have a more sophisticated education in science, each statement is enough to reduce you to tears, but that was my first picture of how atoms work, too, and it didn't stop me acquiring a better picture later.]

OK, yes, Chernev misses things, and yes, he's over-fond of general principles, but I'm very much at ease with Chernev being read by people who haven't yet done much work on their game.  Chernev's enthusiasm is infectious, the games are inspiring and well-chosen (Chernev's selections have turned up ceaselessly in instructional books published since), and, if you're in need of some general principles, I can't think of a better way to acquire them. Unless you have ambitions to be a very much better player than GM Ashley or even postal master Taylor, you could do worse than make it your second chess book, too.

(Aside: I think that particular accolade must go to Garry Kasparov.Lasker Em - Steinitz W 1-0 [C62])

Me too

I see Dan Heisman has also had a go at this issue: http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman118.pdf

Chess Quotes

...which of course was superceded by the more famous:
"After 1.e2-e4 White's game is in its last throes!"
— Julius BREYER